About the Art and Science of Teaching Mix

Weekly Teaching Tip – Sep. 5, 2016
by Rocio Guitard

Let’s start with the easier part: the science (and you may think this sounds crazy). But fact is, all it takes is to sit down and study book after book on how the voice works. On your first attempt, you probably won’t understand most of it (in my case, I started crying in despair after my first attempt; it was like an alien language). So I recommend you start with the basic anatomy of the larynx, then the study of phonation itself, followed by principles of resonance, then formants and formant tuning, ending with examples and explanations of vocal exercises. Take your time with each of these parts before moving on to the next one. Discuss what you don’t understand with more experienced mix teachers (there are always several IVTOM teachers happy to help you!), and try reading different descriptions of the same thing, for example 4 different sections on anatomy from 4 different books or web sites. You’ll notice that the “important stuff” (meaning, what you need to know), will be a recurring theme in all of them.

Now to the more difficult part: the art. Maybe you feel like the new vocal Einstein of vocal science by now, and feel your tool belt is equipped with everything you’ll ever need to fix any voice. But the art is much trickier than that:

The art of listening. No book can substitute for the ability to identify what exactly you’re hearing in a student’s voice. The only way to hone this skill is to observe another mix teacher teaching lessons. You listen to the student, make a mental note of what you think you heard, then discuss it with the teacher to see if you are in agreement. Over, and over, and over again. Your ear will catch more and more of the finer details you may miss at the beginning as you do this.

The art of diagnosing. After you make a list of the things you hear in a student’s voice, you need to learn to “break it down” to the basics you’ve learned in your science study. If you’re hearing a strained tone, for example, what could be the reasons for this? High larynx, forceful adduction, insufficient adduction, hoarseness, tongue tension, nodules… which one(s)? Can they be grouped into categories to get an overview? For example, adduction issues, hoarseness and nodules could be grouped into “vocal cord issues”, while high larynx and tongue tension (among others, if you’re more advanced) can be filed under “tension issues”. Which approach with exercises works best, adduction or relaxation exercises? Then you can zoom in on the problem and try to break it down further into all its components. Observing a more experienced mix teacher do this over and over will help you check if the exercise(s) you hear the teacher do with the student are within the same group you would have chosen, and discuss any disagreements.

The art of picking the right exercises. Your science study will have armed you with the knowledge of which type of musical scale is best to address each issue, and which vowel and/or consonant type best fit a student’s needs. You also understand what a student needs to do to execute the exercises correctly. The best way to do this is, you guessed it, to observe another teacher to see where you agree and you don’t, then discuss. Now, how much do you know about each student’s learning process, speed, personality type, short and long term goals, vocal health, lifestyle, etc? Which brings me to the next point:
The art of building a relationship. Each student is different. There is no Golden Rule, but by observing how a more experienced mix teacher adapts his/her teaching style to each student individually, you’ll start to get a feel for the different “types” and best ways to adapt. A great teacher will seem to switch personalities completely with each student, therefore entering the realm of what is familiar to the student and gaining his/her trust.

The art of communicating. Try asking a student to “make sure the root of the tongue is not pulling on the hyoid bone while singing in normal phonation mode.” No, really, try 😉 One student will want to hear something like “sing goo-goo-goo-goo-goooooooooooo like this:” and then you demonstrate it on a 5-5-5-5-54321 scale, no further explanation desired. The next student is a science geek and wants to know why you’re using “g”, and why you’re correcting his mouth opening on the vowel. The third one has a knot in her throat because she just had a fight with her partner but doesn’t tell you, and the best solution is to give her a cup of tea and your ear so she can vent, instead of a voice lesson. Let’s just say hairdressers aren’t the only impromptu therapists in town. So once again, watch another teacher’s language choices when talking to different students, and do this frequently.

The art of nurturing. What are your student’s goals? Do you think he/she could go further? Do you know how to gently nudge and guide your student to the next level? Be their biggest fan for any accomplishment big or small? Do you have connections in the industry to help your student venture into recording, or playing live, or sing Christmas tunes at a senior center in your neighborhood (just to mention a few)? The more you network with fellow teachers and see them do their thing (yes! more observation time!), the more ideas you will get on how to do this.

So there you go. The science is in the books, but the art can only be learned by observation and experience. You should plan for a LOT of observation time during your training, and if you’re more experienced, find the time every now and then to get into another teacher’s studio and watch what he/she does. You will always learn something new, regardless of whether that teacher is more or less experienced than you are.

Happy Teaching!

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